Monday, March 14, 2011

Two Leningrad Novels by English Writers

Two great English novels, Gillian Slovo's Ice Road and Helen Dunmore's The Siege, have the same epic event as their background – the blockade of Leningrad, the 900-day siege of Russia's second capital, when millions died from cold, hunger and nazi forces bombing. (Dunmore also published The Betrayal, 2010, where she follows the fortunes of her heroes from The Siege through the last years of Stalin's rule).  

Both novels came out roughly at the same time and have the same subject matter (Stalin's purges and the siege of Leningrad during the War) and similar story lines and characters. 

What amazed me as a Russian reader is how skilfully both writers portrayed the psychology of the people and realities of life in that unfamiliar country in the long-removed period, the Soviet Union of 1930s. There are no non-Russian characters in Dunmore's novel, and just one, secondary, in Slovo's.

Gillian Slovo opens her novel Ice Road (2004) with a chapter on the story of the Chelyuskin expedition in the early 1930s, an attempt by the Soviet Union to open up a one-season navigation from European north to the Far East via the Arctic.    The expedition ends in disaster, but the successful international rescue effort was made into a huge propaganda success for the Soviet Union. Slovo mentions a little-known theory that the expedition was doomed from the beginning. The episode introduces the main character in the novel, an uneducated cleaner-cook Irina Davydovna, who survives the Chelyuskin disaster, the purges and, finally, the siege, which is described towards the end of the book. 

That is why, perhaps, the title of Slovo's novel may be slightly misleading. The Ice Road, or the Road of Life was the name given to the only route by which supplies could reach the besieged city – over the frozen lake Ladoga to the east of Leningrad. But of course, Ice Road in the title has a broader meaning, referring also to the Chelyuskin voyage, and, metaphorically, to the hardships of people under Stalin's regime.   

Dunmore begins her narrative closer to the War and deals less with Soviet regime, but more with survival of individuals and their personal feelings under extraordinary circumstances. This is perhaps why her narrative is tighter, easier to follow. She writes beautifully, and creates a powerful romantic image of the most Westernised city in Russia.

I think Ice Road has been unfairly overshadowed by The Siege. While stylistically Helen Dunmore may be stronger than Slovo, psychologically characters in Ice Road are treated deeper than in The Siege. Slovo captured the ordinary life and the paranoia of the thirties in Russia in a more striking manner than it comes through in Dunmore's book.
There are perhaps twice as many characters in Slovo's book than in Dunmore's. Russian names may have the usual bewildering effect on a Western reader, but once you get used to it the picture she paints becomes really epic.

Character development is also more inventive. The main character, Irina, grows from a simple house-hand to a well-read, shrewd moral judge of her intellectual superiors.  

Impressive also is Slovo's mastery of first-person-present-tense narration technique, not an easy tool to master for a writer.

Dramatic tension in Slovo's book is incredible even though there is little action. You don't need to be a confident reader with Dunmore, while Slovo asks to make a little effort, but the reward is great.

Here is one striking passage, describing the atmosphere at the end of the thirties when great purges petered out:

There has been no purge meeting for some weeks now, and only the other day something Borya [dim. of Boris] let slip made him wonder whether there ever would be again: Borya muttering in that cryptic manner which, these days, he's prone to use, that the near disaster of the trial of twenty-one and the death of Bukharin were the end of it and although he never specified the end of what, Anton thinks he knows that what hemeant was the end of this syytematic flushing out of every structure.
The ritual enacted since Kirov's death heading to its final conclusion. Enough. Enough disruption. Enough old Bolsheviks who, marching to their deaths, say: Ave, Caesar, morituri te salutant as they pass their leader. Those same old Bolsheviks who now have new graves. Enough. There is no need for more. Everything has been reordered. Enough. To the Party has come a new generation of recruits. To the Komsomol: new blood. To the army: new generals. To the state: new administrators. To the NKVD: New Man. Enough.
This tidal wave of purges was never aimed at the Antons of this world. All they had to do was lie low, guard they ordinariness, make allies for themselves, all of which Anton should have done. But what did he do instead? He decided to play Stalin, and thus the Party (for aren't the two synonymous?), at his own game. Crazy. This is him – Anton Antonovich [Anton plus patronymic, a more formal way of naming a person in Russian] – remember. The cautious man. That man whose world was once defined by the learning world. That protector of the written word. That same Anton Antonovich who has single-mindedly transformed himself into a liar, a cheat, a forger, a failed gambler who has lost the courage to continue along his risk-laden path. A Gogol [19th Century Russian writer] who, so afraid of death, has brought his own death on himself. An Onegin [title character in Pushkin's novel in verse, Eugene Onegin] who doesn't have to ask that question – will I fall, pierced by the arrow, or will it fly past me? – because he already knows the answer. Yes, he will fall. This he knows.
Anton Antonovich is an academic who, at the height of the purges, 'discovers' and 'translates' an ancient Georgian tract, extolling the virtures of a cruel totalitarian regime with a leader who has absolute power.

None of this type of material can be found in Dunmore's novel, but the romance and survival are present in Slovo's.

There is a little mistake, or, perhaps, a deliberate side-step to simplify the picture: will I fall, pierced by the arrow are not Onegin's words, but Lensky's, his   friend whom he kills at a duel after a stupid quarel.

I suspect the mastery of serious historical and political matter comes to Slovo from her family background. Her father is Joe Slovo, the great South African, who lived an extraordinary life of fighting for the right causes (world war, anti-apartheid movement) and at the end of his life was the key figure in negotiating a peaceful transition in South Africa. 

Here is a video of the 1937 film of Tchaikovsky's opera 'Eugene Onegin' with Sergei Lemeshev as Lensky, the version Slovo's characters would have heard:

Photo: The Bronze Horseman, symbol of St.Petersburg, by Lite.

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